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Stanley Fish on Secular Reasons

February 22, 2010

Apropos of my last few posts, Stanley Fish asks “Are There Secular Reasons?” in an incisive critique of classical liberalism. Paraphrasing a new book by law professor Steven Smith, Fish writes:

If public reason has “deprived” the natural world of “its normative dimension” by conceiving of it as free-standing and tethered to nothing higher than or prior to itself, how, Smith asks, “could one squeeze moral values or judgments about justice . . . out of brute empirical facts?” No way that is not a sleight of hand. This is the cul de sac Enlightenment philosophy traps itself in when it renounces metaphysical foundations in favor of the “pure” investigation of “observable facts.” It must somehow bootstrap or engineer itself back up to meaning and the possibility of justified judgment, but it has deliberately jettisoned the resources that would enable it do so.

The key phrase here is “no way that is not a sleight of hand.” It’s not that we no longer rely on normative judgments in public debates; it’s that we have suppressed them — thanks, in part, to the help of empty abstractions like freedom and equality (as Fish also points out).

The case for health care reform rests on a belief in human rights; regulating the banks rests on a moral preference for economic equality; cap-and-trade legislation is a matter of environmental stewardship. Logic alone cannot establish any of these justifications — which are, indeed, devoid of meaning apart from a specific standard of judgment. But you didn’t hear that from me.

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